Governments Look to Interfaith Moves to Engage Islam

Article excerpt

Amid the polite panel discussions at the Georgetown University-hosted International Prayer for Peace April 26 and 27 one impolitic question hovered: Can Islam play nice?

Kevin Hasson, chairman of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, posed the problem in Catholic terms. "Somewhere out there," Hasson pondered, "is a Muslim John Courtney Murray," a reference to the 20th-century Jesuit who did much to reconcile Catholicism with liberal democracy.

The annual interfaith event, a project of the Community of Sant'Egidio, marked the 20th anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Peace when leaders representing a wide spectrum of the world's religions gathered in Assisi at the invitation of John Paul II. Back then, they prayed for an end to Cold War antagonisms. Two decades later the focus was terrorism, the theme "Religion and Cultures: The Courage of Dialogue."

It was the first of the annual interfaith gatherings held in the United States. "We had to come after Sept. 11," said Andrea Riccardi, Sant'Egidio's founder. Religious leaders of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Shintoists and Sikhs were among the more than 500 participants.

Not too long ago, said several presenters, religion was viewed by secular governments as a divisive force, a significant contributing factor, if not the cause, of terrorism and instability.

Increasingly, however, governments are looking to non-Muslim religious leaders to smooth the way with Islam, to use the common language of faith to engage believers.

Some welcomed this new secular support for interfaith cooperation.

"For years," noted Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican's ambassador to the United Nations, "religion at the U.N. was taboo." But," he continued, "all of the sudden, religion has erupted at the U.N.

"We [religious leaders] must take hold of this attention," said Migliore.

It's a theme echoed beyond the Georgetown gathering.

"In my experience with interreligious dialogue in the past few years, it has become clear to me that clergy are far better than the politicians at baring their souls and sharing their emotions when talking with their enemies [and] are therefore more likely to discuss the fears and insecurities motivating their respective communities to violence," Robert Eisen, professor of religion and Jewish studies at George Washington University, wrote in a May 8 Washington Post op-ed column.

Others were cautious, warning that an essentially spiritual undertaking could be co-opted for political purposes. "Since 9/11 politicians have begun to get interested in dialogues between religions--and not always for the best reasons," Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said at the meeting's opening plenary panel.

In the United States, said Martin, policymakers see interreligious dialogue as one means to placate Muslim hostility to the West--a way "to overcome a breakdown in security." In Europe, Martin continued, government's newfound interest in interfaith discussion is about changing demographics--the desire to preserve a European identity as the Muslim population increases. In the Middle East, continued Martin, former Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the Vatican, interfaith dialogue is viewed by secular leaders as one means to peace between Palestinians and Israelis and to avoid war in Iran. …